© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

KCPD's missing persons unit is back, but advocates for vulnerable women 'haven't heard anything'

A woman holds a megaphone while talking into its microphone. A crowd of people stand behind her. Some are holding signs.
Justice Gatson
Justice Gatson
Justice Gatson, founder of the Reale Justice Network, speaks to a crowd of protestors at a June 2022 rally for women's health care and abortion rights in front of Kansas City Hall.

A Kansas City woman's escape from an Excelsior Springs home where she was being held captive in October sparked outrage, and confirmed fears within the Black community that police weren’t taking reports of missing Black women seriously. More than a month after Kansas City’s chief of police reinstated the department’s Missing Persons Section, community organizations are still wary.

Kansas City activist Justice Gatson has long been suspicious of the Kansas City Police Department. She says for years, the biggest concern some Black women have had with the department was inaction and a lack of good faith.

“There was just a culture of Black women not being believed, and a culture of disrespect to Black women in the community,” says Gatson, who founded of the Reale Justice Network, which helps support women who’ve survived domestic and sexual violence, and advocates for social justice in the region. “If you're Black or Indigenous, they kind of label them like … they're just a runaway or they’re a juvenile delinquent. They don't take it seriously.”

“This whole notion about police equaling safety in our community is really just false. I’ve worked with many survivors of intimate partner violence and I can tell you that, for them, the phone call to police for assistance goes differently when they show up — if they show up at all,” she says.

The situation led to protests last fall, after the Black news startup The Kansas City Defender posted allegations on social media that KCPD was mishandling reports of missing Black women and girls. The allegations made national headlines, but police insisted they were only rumors.

Groups like Gatson’s around Kansas City were persistent in their outcry. Less than a month later, a 22-year-old Black woman identified in court documents as “TJ,” escaped from the Clay County basement of Timothy Haslett Jr., where she was being held captive.

Haslett was charged in February with nine felony counts related to the incident.

In April, Kansas City Police Chief Stacy Graves reinstated the department’s Missing Persons Section. Her predecessor, Rick Smith, disbanded the unit last year because of personnel shortages in Homicide and other units.

Maj. Leslie Foreman now heads up the new seven-detective squad.

“Missing Persons is very important to people in the community, to families to feel like they're being heard and receiving good service. So our goal, and the chief’s goal, is to give it more focus, more attention,” she said at a press conference on the steps of police headquarters last month.

A woman stands between two men outside a stone building. They all have police badges around their neck. The woman in the middle is talking to the media (not shown).
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Maj. Leslie Foreman, center, speaking to reporters in front of police headquarters on April 11, where the department announced Chief Stacy Graves' decision to reinstate the Missing Persons Section.

There have been signs of progress. Police have improved the tracking of victims, and are releasing to the public daily figures about the number of missing women.

Gatson acknowledged the improvements, but says communication with the new unit remains nonexistent.

“I haven't heard anything from them — and they are aware of my work in particular,” she says. “But none of my other nonprofit leaders have mentioned being talked to about this. This would've come up.”

Capt. Corey Carlise responded to a KCUR email about communication concerns from Gatson and others by writing that “the Kansas City Missouri Police Department is open to any opportunity to work with community organizations and partners whose focus is to help reduce crime and assist in providing the best investigative process for members of our community.”

Community tracing

Gregory Parr is executive director of Neighbor2Neighbor, an organization that has worked with homeless people for more than 25 years in and around one of the most dangerous intersections in Kansas City, 35th Street and Prospect Avenue. Parr’s expertise comes first-hand: His former addiction caused him to experience years of homelessness.

His nonprofit encounters many Black women and girls who use sex work to survive, he says. They’re just the kind of vulnerable people who can so frequently go missing.

“It’s very sad and I think the lack of concern for missing Black women is terrible,” he says. “I think that not only should the Kansas City Police Department make that one of the priorities in Kansas City, but across the country really.”

National numbers suggest Black women and girls are underreported as missing more frequently than their white counterparts. They make up a third of missing women, according to a 2021 PBS documentary. U.S. Census data shows Black women make up less than 14% of the female population.

Data released by Kansas City police in May listed 29 women and girls reported missing since October last year. Twenty of them — more than 60% — are Black.

Parr doesn’t mince words over the racial component he sees in the issue, one he says is embedded in the process of reporting someone missing.

A man stands inside a room near a table where there some slow cookers sitting with food in them. He is looking at the camera and gesturing with both hands.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Gregory Parr serves breakfast to homeless people at his nonprofit, near 35th Street and Prospect Avenue. Parr's group is in consistent contact with at-risk Black women and girls.

“When it comes to missing Black women and women of color, compared to if a white girl comes up missing and it's all on the news — we know that to be a fact,” he says.

To lend a hand where police were absent, Parr’s been working with other community organizations to better track the women they come across, and upload their info to the Justice Center Missing Persons app, a project spearheaded by the Justice and Dignity Center near Linwood Boulevard and the Paseo.

“No matter what age they are, if I believe that they are sex workers, I will ask them if I could take a picture of them, take their correct information, their real name, possibly, and their Social Security Number, or their next of kin,” Parr says.

They also work with an organization called Maxsip, that helps some of the women that frequent Parr's nonprofit get cell phones or tablets if they are on public assistance.

As for whether the new unit will make a difference, Parr has his reservations. He says recent outreach from another unit, the Community Engagement Division, gives him hope.

For at least one other nonprofit that works with vulnerable women, the waiting game proved too much years ago.

Kristy Childs is a former sex-trafficking victim who founded Veronica’s Voice in Kansas City in 2000. Fourteen years later, the group left based on the lack of support.

“We had so much pushback from the city. We ended up just selling and coming into Kansas' where we were welcomed,” said Childs.

Without the sustained backing of Kansas City’s new police unit, more organizations like hers may choose to do the same.

As KCUR’s race and culture reporter, I work to help readers and listeners build meaningful and longstanding relationships with the many diverse cultures that make up the Kansas City metro. I deliver nuanced stories about the underrepresented communities that call our metro home, and the people whose historically-overlooked contributions span politics, civil rights, business, the arts, sports and every other realm of our daily lives.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.